By the time a house is ready to be photographed, all the hard work has been done. All you see is the end result – flowers on the table, books on the bookshelves, cushions plumped, rugs straightened. The house of Sara Giunta and Jean-Luc Charrier, set on a quiet hillside in the Alpes-Maritimes, above the crowds, traffic and all the hustle of Côte d’Azur glamour, seems so serene and mature that it is difficult to believe that fourteen years ago, it was nothing more than an idea.
“It was a vineyard that had belonged to the same family since the 16th century,” says Sara. “They still have a small house not far from here.” When they bought the land as a building plot, Sara and Jean-Luc were living over their shop in nearby Valbonne, in an 18th-century townhouse with a courtyard garden. It is still their shop, but has an extra floor of showroom since they moved out, giving them more space to display the sophisticated mix of furnishings that characterize La Maison de Charrier; 18th-century panelling and cupboards with original paint, dark oil portraits, glass and mottled mirrors, antique chairs and sofas upholstered in undyed linens, and a small selection of elegant contemporary pieces including the fine, pale, feather-light pottery of Astier de Villatte, which is made in this area.
Their home is a refined and beautifully edited version of the shop. At the top of a drive lined with cypress trees, you arrive at a plain facade where a pair of double doors open into a simple hall. Facing you are glazed doors and steps leading down into a big, white room lit by French doors onto a garden, and a row of windows with fine glazing bars, the size and style of which give the space the feel of an 18th-century orangery.
And here is that same mix of antiques and newer pieces, linen upholstery in shades of pearl and silvery grey, and Astier de Villatte candlesticks lined up on the mantelpiece.
The contents reflect the style of the shop, but the architecture is grander. “As well as being antique dealers and interior decorators, we specialize in the restoration of old houses,” says Sara. “When it came to building something completely new, we used the same skills and expertise.” Limited by planning restrictions, which stipulated a maximum footprint and height for the building, they decided to give the five first-floor bedrooms and two bathrooms more modest proportions in favour of high ceilings throughout the ground floor. This floor comprises the large L-shaped living and dining room that wraps around the kitchen, and also Sara’s bedroom and bathroom, and their seven-year-old son Lupo’s bedroom, all of which lead off the main room. ‘Proportions are so important,” says Sara. “A building must look beautiful when empty.”
Certainly they have created a series of beautiful spaces in these light-filled downstairs rooms, but they have also built a house that, like its furnishings, combines the old with the new. Starting from scratch has enabled them to work around architectural antiques, creating openings to fit an 18th-century front door and reclaimed windows, cladding walls with panelling, and constructing a chimney breast around a superb stone chimney piece that dates from the 17th century. Also reclaimed are the clay tiles in shades of soft gold and apricot, which spread their variegated blush across every floor upstairs and down. Handles, window fastenings, shutters, wall tiles, ceiling beams, wardrobe doors, outdoor paving, and even the kitchen sink, all are antique.
The floor may be antique, but it is also heated. History and comfort, patina and state-of-the-art plumbing, this house seems to have it all. As Sara sweeps from room to room, organizing lunch and arranging flowers, while Jean-Luc scans his laptop at the table on the shady terrace outside the kitchen, and Lupo builds a Lego spaceship in his panelled bedroom, their life looks like one of picture-perfect privilege. Which it is. But it is also the result of passion and talent, of years of experience, and sheer, determined, doggedly enthusiastic effort.
Joining Jean-Luc at the table outside, Sara reminisces. They met in the late 1990s when she was furnishing and restoring a house, and started visiting his antique shop. “Jean-Luc and I had very different journeys. I was born in Sicily into a family of doctors, and lived in Rome, then Tangiers. Jean-Luc’s mother was Italian, but his father was French and he was brought up here and studied History of Art. We made a strong connection, and discovered we shared similar and complementary tastes, and a passion for antiques and design,” says Sara.
Both had young children from previous marriages – she four boys, he a boy and a girl – but they decided to open a shop together. “We left our marriages with nothing, and started from scratch. We found the house where our shop is and worked on it every day until eight or nine at night. When we opened, we had a small stock, but our first customer was an American – she bought lots of things and came back the next day with a big bouquet of flowers to wish us luck. Not long after that I found my first client, who came in saying he needed a new carpet, and ended up employing me to redesign and decorate his whole house. He was my angel.”
Over the years since, they have gathered a loyal following, including the rich and famous about whom they are admirably discreet. And at the same time, they have been working on their own project, this house, sticking to a strict budget, and progressing as funds allowed. When Lupo was born, they adjusted their plans to make the room that was going to be their office into a bedroom for him. Having bought the plot in 2002, it took another four years of planning, and ten years of construction before it was finished. Even now there is the odd wire protruding from a wall, waiting for the right light fitting.
Today is a family lunch, a gathering of five of their seven children including Lupo – one who works in finance, one an actor and comedian, one an animator, one a professor of philosophy. After lunch, they all jump in the pool. A privilege they probably appreciate all the more for having had to wait.
This is an extract from Perfect French Country by Ros Byam-Shaw with photographer Jan Baldwin, published by Ryland Peters & Small.
GET THE LOOK
Recreate owners Sara and Jean-Luc’s design tricks in your own French home with these purchases from French retailers. Prices and availability correct at time of going to press.
Keep an eye out for black and white checked carrelage (tiling) at a brocante or antique shop, or find brand new tiles – they add an elegant graphic touch to the kitchen. 10x10cm from Castorama. €15.88 per sqm.
Poise and charm
Add a personal touch to your favourite reading armchair by placing a stylish anglepoise lamp right next to it. This 171cm tall Lampadaire Artemis from Leroy Merlin will do the job perfectly.
Lend your lounge a touch of 18th century style with this elegant console table hewn from mango tree wood.
Height: 80cms. €299.